Khan Academy Gets Serious About Organic Chemistry

by James

in Teaching, Uncategorized

Readers might recall that a few months ago I went through and summarized all 73 of the Khan Academy organic chemistry videos. Going back to the KA site two weeks ago I was surprised to note that  big changes have been effected on their organic chemistry home page.  The organization of the main page has changed and there are a lot more videos (at least twice as many!). Khan Academy is clearly getting serious about this topic.

Kind of like Japanese auto imports of the 1960s, the earlier version of KA’s organic chemistry “curriculum” was lightweight, ugly, and generally not up to standard. November quote:

They are a useful supplement for nomenclature, structure and bonding, and some aspects of conformations… but the videos on reactions tend to be shallow.  There is a lot of imprecise language (e.g. “guy” instead of, say “nucleophile”). Chemical reactivity is  largely explained in an ad hoc fashion rather than in a way that ties back to fundamental concepts of physics.

As Toyota and Nissan stepped forward, however, so has KA’s offering.  So what’s changed? A few major things.

  1. Khan is no longer doing all the videos himself. A new lecturer, “Jay” (I’d give more information but I couldn’t find anything about him on the KA website) is responsible for the new videos.
  2. The organic chemistry page has been reorganized into sections on Gen Chem Review, Organic Structures, Alkanes and Cycloalkanes, Stereochemistry, Substitution and Elimination Reactions, Alkenes and Alkynes, Alcohols, Conjugation and MO Theory, Aromatic Compounds, Aldehydes and Ketones, Carboxylic Acids, and Amines.
  3. There are over 100 new videos (I count 189 total), up from 73.

Besides the new lecturer, the most significant change is the addition of topics that had previously been omitted. Back in November I made a laundry list of the top 10 topics that were missing. Let’s update.

  1. no discussion of organic acids and bases section on acids/bases added
  2. evaluation of resonance forms; what makes one resonance form more stable than another? – videos added
  3. no discussion of the stereochemistry of the E2 reactionvideos added 
  4. only 3 alkene addition reactions covered [out of >15] ; no examples with stereochemistry. Missing examples like bromination, hydroboration, epoxidation, etc. – section added on hydrogenation, halohydrin formation, epoxidation, ozonolysis (and more) 
  5. no discussion of alkynes or their reactionssection on alkynes added
  6. no discussion of carbocation rearrangements – videos added
  7. no discussion of oxidation/reduction videos added 
  8. only one video devoted to the concept of aromaticity, not enough to understand it; only 2 reactions of aromatic derivatives [not added] 
  9. only 3 videos on reactions of aldehydes, ketones, and carboxylic acid derivatives [not added] 
  10. no discussion of the Diels-Alder or related reactions; no discussion of molecular orbitals section added

That’s a significant addition. While I confess I haven’t gone too deeply into them, only having watched a handful, I can say the following about the new videos made by “Jay”:

  • The language is much more precise (much fewer incidences of  “guy”, thankfully ). With the original videos it felt very much like Khan was doing videos in a spontaneous, off-the-cuff fashion. The verbal presentation of Jay is more formal and scripted.
  • Discussion on reactivity goes into principles of electrostatics to a much greater extent than Khan did. Using fundamental principles of physics to explain reactivity rather than talking about how molecules just “want” to do things —->  an improvement.
  • Khan’s idiosyncratic arrow pushing method is not followed by the new lecturer. Another improvement.

The old videos made by Khan himself are still up on the site, so there are bound to be some contradictions between the two sets of videos. Like an unexploded land mine, the notorious video with fluorine as a leaving group is still up too – if anyone’s from KA is reading this, that would be a good one to change, guys. But overall, the addition of new, more rigorous videos from KA marks an improvement.

At this point I am all set up to make a lame joke comparing what KA is doing to education as being like what Japanese automakers did to American car companies in the 1970’s. I’ll refrain, but I will say this: 1) KA isn’t going anywhere 2) the format of short, topical, accessible videos as a means to teach a subject like organic chemistry is a true innovation, and 3) in a world where students have many available resources to educate themselves, they’ll vote with their feet.  To make things even more interesting, last week the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced the launching of a MOOC on Coursera led by noted organic chemistry instructor Prof.  Jeffrey Moore. Still only beginning its second week (of 8) , but promises to be very interesting. More on this soon.


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }


Whoa, someone was listening to you! It’s awesome to see that they’ve updated their videos. :-)

You’re more than welcome to critique our stuff on Coursera, James, if you’re not video’d out. Many of our organic 1 videos could use updates…or at least the eyes of an expert.



I enrolled and submitted my first quiz. Lots of pressure that I don’t make any dumb mistakes!



It is great that the number of videos on websites such as Khan or are growing because of the popularity of their educational value.


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